You should know I am not a Joycean. I reluctantly trudged through “Ulysses’’ in one college course. Then in graduate school, feeling as if I perhaps was missing out, I tried again, taking a much-vaunted class on Joyce and Beckett — and gravitating toward Beckett rather than Joyce.
Similarly, I don’t do Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the book’s central character, and takes place on June 16 as does “Ulysses.’’ To mark it, thousands around the world dress up and reenact scenes. Many cities organize marathon readings (it can take 30 hours to get through all 265,000 words). The epicenter is Dublin, which hosts a massive festival of tours, screenings, performances, and gorgonzola sandwiches — think part “Rocky Horror Picture Show’’ in Edwardian dress and part SantaCon pub crawl.
But I loved Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book” anyway. You don’t need to be a Bloomsday devotee to enjoy or profit mightily from it. Birmingham, a debut author and Harvard PhD, writes with fluidity and a surprising eye for fun. He probably has read through the mountains of books and scholarly articles on “Ulysses’’ and seems obsessed with the book itself, but wears it all lightly.
Birmingham chronicles the remarkable saga of a novel that outraged censors and sensibilities in Europe and America with its obscenities and sexual depictions. In a vivid narrative, he follows “Ulysses’’ from Joyce’s travails composing it through the legal and social roadblocks it faced on its way to publication.
Perhaps most important, he makes you want to go back and read — and treasure — Joyce’s novel because he liberally salts the novel’s backstory with memorable anecdotes and apercus, especially at the close of each chapter.
One of Birmingham’s chapters, on the notorious “dirty letters” written in 1909 between Joyce and his wife, Nora, finishes: “He wanted people to read novels as carefully, as ardently and as sleeplessly as they would read dirty letters sent from abroad. It was one of modernism’s great insights. James Joyce treated readers as if they were lovers.”
Another chapter details how the British government incinerated copies of “Ulysses,’’ concludes like Kafka: “Then they burned the records of the burning.”
Yet another ends with a crazy fact: “There was only one problem. The book that Random House gave Reichl to print [in 1933] wasn’t the latest Shakespeare and Company edition. It was Samuel Roth’s edition. The first legal edition of ‘Ulysses’ in the United States was the corrupted text of a literary pirate.”
The basic outline is that “Ulysses’’ wasn’t always “Ulysses.’’ Today it is considered a masterpiece, translated into several languages; more than 100,000 copies are sold each year.
Almost a century ago, it was a beleaguered orphan, this novel written by an Irishman living in Italy, Germany, and France, and published by an American in Paris. After nine years, it had sold a meager total of 24,000 copies (not including pirated copies Samuel Roth, a New York pornographer, had issued).
Part of the reason for weak sales is that the novel is famously challenging. It grafts the structure of Homer’s poem “The Odyssey’’ onto characters in Dublin on June 16, 1904 — an epic compressed into a single day. When it appeared, “Ulysses’’ was a milestone for modernism. Stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narrators, punning, allusionary prose, no quotation marks, a lengthy, punctuation-less chapter — Joyce more or less started it all. “Ulysses’’ was so difficult to read that British censors thought it was all a code (as did generations of college students like myself).
It was also scandalous. “Ulysses,’’ stuffed with four-letter words, masturbation, and prostitution, ran afoul of obscenity laws. Authorities raided bookshops and banned magazines that serialized excerpts. They jailed editors and booksellers. For a dozen years after it was first published, it was illegal to sell the novel in almost every English-speaking country. Thousands of copies were burned on both sides of the Atlantic.
Birmingham delights in describing how people illicitly obtained copies: decoy covers, private couriers, chopping the novel into pieces and shipping them concealed inside newspapers. Ernest Hemingway connected Shakespeare and Company, the Paris publisher, with a bootlegger who smuggled copies into the United States from Canada. It wasn’t until December 1933 when a New York judge ruled “Ulysses’’ wasn’t obscene that the book began to circulate in a normal way.
The most titillating news in “The Most Dangerous Book’’ is doled out in doses. Some are queasy doses, mind you, and much of it relates to Joyce’s eyes. He had glaucoma, iritis, cataracts, nebulae, conjunctivitis, and a host of other maladies. He wore piratical eye patches (the common accoutrement for every male on Bloomsday) because people were so disturbed by how awful his iris-less eyes looked. He endured multiple surgeries and treatments of injections, hallucination-causing eye drops and, most gruesomely, leeches sucking on his eyelids.
The point of Joyce’s ocular pathology is not just to elucidate his struggles writing “Ulysses’’ and to help explain his panoptic wit and wisdom, but to also announce a new revelation. Birmingham believes he has rooted out the cause: syphilis, which Joyce probably contracted in a Dublin brothel.
Birmingham’s book isn’t perfect. There are too many anecdotes about peripheral characters; a couple of pages about Hemingway are usually more than enough. Birmingham, in an I-must-tell-you-everything-I-found-in-my-research way, describes Joyce’s eye issues and surgeries in excruciating detail. He also misses nice links, like the fact that two days before “Ulysses’’ became legal here, Prohibition had been rescinded.
But it is a compelling tale that makes me want to don an eye patch and bowler and go out tomorrow to reenact events that never happened from a novel that almost never was.
James Zug is the author of six books, including “Run to the Roar.’’ He can be reach at email@example.com.